The Not-So-Spiritual East

God's Dust: A Modern Asian Journey

by Ian Buruma
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 267 pp., $18.95

Ian Buruma
Ian Buruma; drawing by David Levine

Beside the road that connects Solo to Jogjakarta in central Java, a beautiful village named Begajah was barely beginning its quest for a modern way of life when I arrived in 1971. People there lived under thatched roofs and padded barefooted down dirt paths. Its rice fields were meticulously cultivated. Its palms were laden with coconuts. Bananas and papayas ripened everywhere. Chickens and goats and water buffalo and ducks were tended by small boys who always seemed to be laughing or jumping into the new irrigation ditches. People poured buckets of water over their heads from backyard wells each morning. Tiny oil lamps flickered inside houses at night. Electricity was sixteen years away. But ghosts and spirits, both good and bad, lurked everywhere as they always had in defiance of centuries of teaching by the importers of ideas called Islam and Christianity.

Reading God’s Dust, I was reminded constantly of Begajah as Ian Buruma roams Asia listening patiently to urban natives from Japan to Singapore pine wistfully for the villages of their past, the villages where the real Japan or Taiwan existed pristinely before Western modernity ruined them.

Begajah was “real” back then, and it looked very much like the paradise village urban Asians now miss and foreign visitors claim they can no longer find. It was immaculately clean because it was too poor to afford to throw anything away. It had no garbage, no scrap paper or wrappings. Women even saved their hair combings for the man who came around to buy them for the wig factories of Singapore. No dust either, because most Begajahans were too poor to buy anything that went fast enough to create dust. Half the families couldn’t afford bicycles.

Begajahans ate precious little of the fruits and protein their trees and animals produced. That high-priced food had to be sold to buy cheaper dried fish, soybean cakes, tapioca, and other basics that kept stomachs fuller longer. Still, there were hungry times. The young boys may have giggled a lot, but conditions of hunger and ill health took their toll. Boys who were twelve and thirteen years old in Begajah looked like well-fed eight-year-olds in Jakarta. To Begajahans, their twelve-year-olds were normal.

Begajahans those days would not have been complete without the resident Indonesian army sergeant, whose job it was to maintain order, in part by limiting the importation of ideas that conflicted with what Indonesia’s military rulers had decreed to be the truth, namely that Indonesia was developing into a prosperous and modern nation, and all that stood between the chaos of communism on the left and the chaos of fanatical Islam on the right was their inspired leadership. Other truths weren’t even whispered. It was relatively easy to police thought in a village where so few truths circulated.

I went back to Begajah sixteen years later and found garbage and dust and noisy motorbikes…

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